The aftermath of the Newark by-election has seen a huge volume of commentary on the future fortunes of the UK Independence Party. One only need consult today’s newslinks to get an idea it. This is entirely to be expected.
After their poll-topping European performance and some unwise stoking of expectations by the UKIP machine, Newark was viewed by many as UKIP’s shot at a parliamentary seat, even as the other parts of the “post-Euros Conservative meltdown” narrative were being packed away. Even hours before the declaration, Farage et al were plugging a wildly optimistic outcome of more than thirty per cent of the vote, leaving the party in the awkward position, if the sources are to be believed, of having to cancel a People’s Army ‘best by-election result’ rally.
So their underperformance has raised comment. Much of it is of the “wheels have come off the bus/bandwagon has jammed” variety, which will doubtless be going down well in CCHQ. At ConHome our own Paul Goodman is less inclined to such a sanguine view of UKIP’s prospects, which makes all the more important the second theme to emerge from the reams of UKIP coverage: how do we deal with the purple peril.
There are two camps, broadly speaking. The former, whose position is outlined by Simon Heffer in the Daily Mail, are the traditionalists. These view UKIP as at root a Tory rebellion, an insurrection of true-hearted Thatcherites and the sort of voters who backed Thatcher. This is the tendency that views UKIP and the Conservatives as fundamentally of the same essence, and mentally adds the blue and purple columns together in elections to calculate ‘what might have been’.
The second, handily embodied by Damian Green in a speech to the Tory Reform Group, are the liberals, or modernisers. This wing take the view that any pursuit of UKIP will lead the party an electoral cul-de-sac, and that we should not be distracted from the great mass of moderate voters, not to mention key future groups like BME voters and the young, who could be deterred by the measures necessary to bring UKIP ‘home’.
Which side is correct? To my mind, neither. The modernisers are undoubtedly correct to think that any attempt by the Conservatives to win back UKIP’s ‘core vote’ – Farage’s most committed supporters – would be electoral suicide. After all, these were the people who were rock-solidly in our corner when we handed Tony Blair the 2001 and 2005 elections. But disdaining the entire UKIP vote to tilt policies that play well in the Guardian, as the more zealous Cameroons so often seem inclined to do, is equally self-defeating. It should be self-evident that there is no Conservative majority in this country without a big chunk of the sensible right-wing vote.
The key, I think, is to stop thinking in simple terms about ‘UKIP voters’. No party’s electorate is an homogenous mass, at least not when you start winning the sort of support levels UKIP is getting. The key is to gain a proper understanding of UKIP’s support and pitch vigorously for those sections of it which we can win over within our overall aim of building an open, confident, forward-looking centre-right majority.
Sunder Katwala of British Future has given us a head start here. Building on the recent (and very timely) new book on UKIP by the academics Rob Ford and Matthew Goodwin, Katwala divides UKIP into three broad segments: tactical, engageable, and rejectionist. Tactical ‘kippers are those who told pollsters they were voting UKIP in the Euros to ‘send a message’, and already planned to return to a major party in 2015. Rejectionists are those voters who agree with Farage on three critical themes: Europe, immigration and mistrusting the ‘political class’.
The former are coming home of their own accord. The latter are unwinnable. But critical is the third category: the engageable UKIP vote. These are people currently telling pollsters they’ll back UKIP in 2015, but are open-minded about changing their vote. They’re receptive to sensible policies on migration, would rather the government ‘got a grip’ than talked of closing the border, and are more likely than hard-core UKIP voters to be willing to give Cameron’s European renegotiation the time of day.
Crucially, they make up half of the people telling pollsters they plan on voting UKIP in 2015, and will make the difference between them getting around six per cent or closer to ten or even twelve – and between Cameron or Miliband being the next Prime Minister. So long as winning this section over is compatible with building our relationship with the key demographics of future majorities – minority voters, young people, Scots – we must not be afraid to fight Farage for them.